by CHRIS ROGERS
At the end of May, officials for the city of Winona and Woodlawn Cemetery sat down to talk business. Much of the city’s current Holzinger Trails run across cemetery land, and Winona wants to buy land and/or easements to overhaul and expand those bluffside hiking and mountain biking trails. No deal has been reached yet, but the two parties are talking. The discussion comes amid a recent cemetery project to log a portion of the trails on its property.
The land-acquisition effort is part of the city’s Bluff Traverse plan, a proposed $3.2-million project to build a world-class hiking and biking trail network in the bluffs south of Winona from Sugar Loaf to Garvin Heights to the edge of Saint Mary’s University. The city does not plan to fund the entire project itself. City leaders hope to win state grants for the majority of the $3-million project, and they made major headway in that effort last week when the Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission named the Bluff Traverse a state-recognized regional park — a key step to winning state Legacy grants. So far, the City Council has allocated $600,000 in local funds to the project — enough to fund archeological surveys, continue detailed trail design, and blaze a couple new trails on city land this year.
However, to achieve the grand vision of connecting Sugar Loaf, Garvin Heights, and Holzinger Trails in one bluff-to-bluff network, the new trails would have to cross a lot of private land. Winona wants to either buy land from private property owners or purchase easements from them. Under an easement, property owners retain ownership of the land, but the public gains legal access to trails on the property.
So far, the city has purchased two properties for the Bluff Traverse: a strip of woods south of Heights Boulevard and an empty lot on Wincrest Drive that could serve as a trailhead. There are numerous other private properties and Winona State University-owned land to which the city is interested in obtaining access, but the biggest chunk of private land in both the existent Holzinger Trails network and the entire proposed Bluff Traverse is owned by Woodlawn Cemetery.
Winonans have been hiking trails on Woodlawn property for decades, and according to officials for both the city and cemetery, there was once an easement that formally allowed that access. “The easement just expired, and there’s been kind of an informal understanding [that public access is allowed] from then to now,” Winona Outdoor Recreation Coordinator Ross Greedy stated. “Just recently we’ve talked started talking about, ‘How do we make that relationship more formal,’ which then opens up the door for state funding to develop and maintain those trails,” he added. To win state grants, the city needs to own the land or hold long-term easements for the land its trails will run across.
The Woodlawn Cemetery Association is a nonprofit organization and a local jewel in and of itself, often heralded as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the Midwest and home to final resting places of many of the most famous Winonans in the city’s history. However, like all cemeteries, Woodlawn has a challenging business model. It maintains an ever-growing number of graves for perpetuity, but reaps a limited amount of one-time revenue from new burials. Woodlawn has some unique challenges, as well, including steep terrain and numerous bridges that add to maintenance costs.
“We’re definitely at the stage where we’re willing to allow them to use the trails, but we have to meet at terms that are fair for both of us. And they have a bigger pocket book than we do,” Woodlawn Cemetery Superintendent Tim Leahy said of the city. “We’ve been in conversations with the city in regards to some of the property they’d like to look at for easements from Woodlawn. We haven’t had any agreements yet, but we’re working on that,” he continued.
Leahy referred further questions to the cemetery’s attorney, Cindy Telstad. Telstad declined to comment on whether Woodlawn is interested in selling easements or land to the city other than to say, “We’re still in the process of those discussions, but the fact that the parties are having discussion, to me, is an indication that they’re interested in working toward a solution.”
“It’s a win-win” for the cemetery and the city, Greedy said. “It’s an opportunity for funding and management and an opportunity for the community to keep open that access.” Greedy described the talks with Woodlawn as a very positive conversation and expressed optimism that a deal could be reached soon. “Everyone has been excited about continuing that space’s use by the community,” he said.
Logging project reaches popular trail
For the last couple years, Woodlawn Cemetery has hired a forester to log and sell some of the trees in its woodlands. In 2017, the cemetery applied for and received a permit for a logging operation from the city of Winona, as well as a variance — or exception — that allows the cemetery to selectively remove trees on steep slopes where logging is not normally allowed. The forest has been thinned in sections, and this spring, the selective harvesting project reached one of the more popular sections of Holzinger Trails, the Low Rollers trail just east of Holzinger Lodge.
There have been some complaints from trail users about the logging. In response, Leahy wrote, “Woodlawn is removing trees in accordance with a selective harvesting plan developed with the assistance of a qualified forester. Woodlawn obtained the necessary approvals and permit from the city of Winona before starting the project. Trees that are being removed are mostly oak trees that are over-mature or show signs of disease, decay, internal rotting, or insect infestation. After the selective harvest, sugar maple trees, which are already established, but whose growth has been hampered by the oaks’ canopy, will be able to flourish. The forester has predicted that the sugar maple canopy will be established in less than five years. The selective harvest will improve the health of the forest and enhance the appearance of the bluff side. Woodlawn’s board of trustees recognizes the unique beauty of Woodlawn and believes this project is in the best interests of Woodlawn and the community. Please be patient before jumping to conclusions.”
Winona City Planner Carlos Espinosa stated that Woodlawn is in compliance with all of the conditions of its permit and variance. The permit requires Woodlawn’s forester remove no more than 30 percent of forest canopy. Espinosa said the operation did remove more than that, but that was only because some of the trees were infected with oak wilt, a fungal disease that kills many oak trees. The diseased trees were a fall hazard, and their removal is permitted by city ordinance, even though it exceeded the normal limit for maintaining canopy cover, Espinosa explained.
Woodlawn has the right to log its own property, and logging does have some effect on the trails, Greedy said. “From an outdoor-recreation standpoint, it certainly changes the landscape that’s there, and it has the potential to have an impact on the trail system and the species that are able to thrive in that area.” He explained, “Just by the nature of that operation, it opened up the canopy and changes the way that forest feels from what people may have remembered it as. And that can have various implications on the understory: … more light, more space, more opportunity for growth of good things and bad things, as well as more rain coming in, more water, and less cover.”
Leahy did not respond before press time to a question about whether Woodlawn would consider harvesting more trees in the future.
Asked if city officials have discussed future logging operations as part of their negotiations with Woodlawn, Greedy responded, “That is a point of conversation that will have to be worked out as we continue the conversation with Woodlawn.” He explained that it could depend on whether the city acquires actual land or just easements. If the city purchased land outright from Woodlawn, the city would not log it, he stated. Leahy has said Woodlawn is interested in selling easements, not land.
Greedy added that the main goal for the city is to provide recreational access to trails. The city’s attitude toward logging operations on the trails depends on how much feedback it gets from citizens about how tree harvesting affects recreation and the results of a recent biological survey aimed at identifying areas of high biodiversity within the proposed Bluff Traverse.